WHENEVER a manager leaves a football club, there tends to be a moment that can be identified as the point of no return.

For Steve Bruce, it was the split-second in a home game against Wigan when thousands of Sunderland supporters decided to use their manager’s Geordie heritage as a means of running him out of their club. For Gus Poyet, it was the sight of an entire stand mocking his failings during an FA Cup tie at Bradford City.

Jack Ross remains in charge of Sunderland, and for all the bitterness and acrimony that spilled over during Saturday’s dispiriting 1-1 draw at Bolton Wanderers, there is still a chance the Scot will turn things around. If he is unable to do so, though, the 66th minute of his side’s game at the University of Bolton Stadium could come to be regarded as the moment when he went from a manager under pressure to a dead man walking towards his fate.

With his side trailing 1-0 to a team that has still not won this season, and that was only cobbled together on deadline-day at the start of the month, Ross opted to replace an admittedly-ineffectual Chris Maguire with Charlie Wyke. Almost to a man and woman, the 4,037 travelling fans housed to his right broke into a chorus of “You don’t know what you’re doing”.

That was bad enough, but worse was to follow a minute or so later when the Bolton supporters taunted Ross with a volley of “You’re getting sacked in the morning”. Instead of leaping to their manager’s defence, a sizeable section of the Sunderland support joined in. It certainly wasn’t all of them, and the abuse did not last long before it was drowned out by a different song in support of the club. But it was a marked upgrade in the level of open dissent voiced by Sunderland’s most loyal fans. Like Pandora’s box, once the lid is off, it is extremely difficult to put it back on.

Can Ross win the fans back around? A sequence of wins would no doubt help, but given that Sunderland have now racked up as many 1-1 draws as victories in League One this season, there is no guarantee at all that results will turn. And even if Sunderland were to win their next three or four matches, the next time they fall behind, the frustration in the stands will be aimed in Ross’ direction.

Is that fair? It depends on your opinion of what Sunderland should be achieving. If, like Ross, you take the view that Sunderland are a League One club with League One players, then a record of one defeat from 11 matches in all competitions this season is hardly a disaster. Aiden McGeady’s stoppage-time penalty meant they salvaged a point at the weekend, enabling them to remain within three points of the automatic-promotion places.

There is a wider context providing the backdrop to life on Wearside though, reflecting both the reality of Sunderland’s size and stature in comparison to the vast majority of their rivals in the third tier, the scale of their wage bill compared to that of their rivals and the failings that prevented the Black Cats from winning promotion last season. So many of last term’s problems remain unsolved. Whether Ross is culpable for that or not, the blame will be laid at his door.

“Listen, I’m a 43-year-old man,” said Ross, when the criticism from the stands was discussed in the wake of Saturday’s game. “I’ve been through a lot in life to earn the right to work. I’ve dealt with things in family life. Trust me, it’s not a flippant remark because, like every human being, criticism is not nice for any person, irrespective of what walk of life they’re in. But the strength of character to deal with it is a different thing.”

Ross will not be shrinking from the challenge, but the focus now shifts to Stewart Donald and Charlie Methven, who have the Scotsman’s fate in their hands. While a takeover should be completed in the next couple of weeks, Donald and Methven will remain in control of Sunderland’s day-to-day affairs, meaning they will continue to play an influential role in whether to stick with Ross or begin the search for a new manager.

There are ties of loyalty to consider, with Ross having agreed to pass up alternative job opportunities in order to move to Sunderland at a time when the club was in a considerable state of flux. But while Donald and Methven opted against a change of manager in the aftermath of last season’s play-off final defeat, they have made no attempt to hide their determination to avoid a repeat of May’s disappointment. Automatic promotion is regarded as a minimum requirement this season – they must now assess whether Ross remains the best person to deliver it.

It is possible to construct an argument that he is because for all that Sunderland’s last few performances have been disappointing, it would be unfair to suggest that the club’s players are not playing for their manager. Effort is not an issue – quality is, but that is not going to change just because the identity of the man in the dug-out alters.

The brutal reality is that for all that Sunderland might boast the biggest wage bill in League One, their squad is seriously flawed. A lack of pace in attack is a major issue, with neither Will Grigg, Charlie Wyke nor Marc McNulty really able to run behind a back four. Aside from Aiden McGeady, there is a lack of creativity in midfield, and the defence remains incapable of keeping a clean sheet, with lapses of concentration perhaps reflecting the limitations of a group of players that have never really played at a level higher than League One. Changing the manager would not change much of that.

The counter-argument would be that a change in approach might produce different outcomes. A more attacking outlook, instead of Ross’ inherent conservatism, might get Sunderland onto the front foot and draw more of a goal threat from the current squad.

In fairness, Sunderland created more than enough opportunities to win at the weekend, but were thwarted by a combination of dreadful finishing, with Grigg and Tom Flanagan spurning free headers, and some inspired goalkeeping from Remi Matthews, who touched Luke O’Nien’s goal-bound effort onto the post.

The Black Cats were undone by a moment of awful defending, with Will Buckley steering Ali Crawford’s free-kick to Jack Hobbs, who stabbed home, but equalised in stoppage-time when Yoan Zouma handled. Four days after missing a penalty against Rotherham, McGeady made amends.